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Ranking Utah’s 2017 Football Schedule: No. 1 USC

NCAA Football: Southern California at Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Utah at USC

Saturday, Oct. 14

Los Angeles, Calif.

Our countdown is now complete with the toughest game in 2017: USC. This should not be a surprise, USC is the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2017. They feature the most talent of any team in the conference and finished 2016 as one of the hottest teams in the country after reeling off nine-straight wins including the Rose Bowl over Penn State. Utah has not won at USC since 1916. The last time Utah rolled into L.A., they were ranked No. 3 in the country and got blasted 42-24. In general, the Utes have not played well at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the Pac-12, failing to score a touchdown there in 2013 and never keeping the game within one score (though they were close in 2011 when a potential game-tying field goal was blocked and run back for a touchdown).

USC as always features tons of talent. The headliner is quarterback Sam Darnold, who is a Heisman frontrunner. Ronald Jones II, who rushed for over 1,000 yards and averaged over 6 yards per carry, is back at running back is also back. The top two wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Darreus Rogers, are both gone, but players like Deontay Burnett, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, and Steven Mitchell, Jr. look to be ready to step in for USC. Toa Lobendahn is back from a knee injury that kept him out most of last season for the Trojans on the offensive line. There is talent on the line for USC, but they lack experience up front with tackles Chad Wheeler, who was an All-American, and Zach Banner gone, in addition to guard Damien Mama.

On defense, USC has big questions at defensive line. They had to take Utah backup Stevie Tu’ikolovatu as a grad transfer last year due to a lack of talent and depth. He’s now gone, meaning the Trojans will be counting on players who have either been injured or inconsistent for much of their career or are true freshmen. Kenny Bigelow is a sixth year senior, who was a five-star recruit but has had horrible luck with injuries (hence the sixth year of eligibility). Stevie T’s replacement is true freshman Marlon Tuipulotu, who did enroll early but will be counted on a lot. There is also freshman Jay Tufele, who might push for playing time at defensive tackle. At defensive end, Rasheem Green was a five-star recruit, but he has not lived up to his potential so far as a Trojan heading into his junior season. USC’s two top tacklers are back: Cam Smith (yes he did survive that block from Garett Bolles) and Porter Gustin. They also get Iman Marshall back in the secondary, but the secondary did lose Thorpe Award winner Adoree’ Jackson and safety Leon McQuay III. Seven defensive starters are back for the Trojans from a talented 2016 unit.

In our opinion here at BlockU, we see the Washington and USC games on a different tier in terms of a challenge compared to the rest of the games on Utah’s schedule in 2017. Utah has to go on the road to take on the two favorites to win the Pac-12 North and South Divisions. Why is USC the toughest game over the Washington game? They are both very good teams, but USC gets the edge here for several reasons that have more to do with circumstance rather than on field talent. Utah will certainly get the attention of both teams, but the Utes may get more attention from USC for two reasons: the Utes are one of USC’s biggest challengers in the Pac-12 South (after all the Utes were picked second in the South in the Pac-12 media poll), and the Utes beat USC last year and effectively cost USC the Pac-12 South title. Further, Utah has to play Stanford the week before playing USC, which should be a physical battle. They will have to play their third toughest game in our rankings the week before USC, compared to facing Washington State the week before UW, which is certainly a very tough game, but not as tough as Stanford, especially physically. UW has to play at Stanford the week before Utah, so they will be dealing with a physical matchup with huge division implications the week before taking on the Utes. USC on the other hand gets Oregon State at home the week before Utah, one of the weaker teams in the conference. USC will come into the game well rested compared to Washington having played a tough game against their biggest challenger in the Pac-12 North on the road. Neither of these games looks very winnable on paper, and arguments can be made for either to be the toughest, but it is clear they are far and away the two most difficult games Utah will play in 2017.

Toughest Games in 2017 Countdown

No. 12 North Dakota

No. 11 San Jose State

No. 10 Arizona

No. 9 Arizona State

No. 8 BYU

No. 7 Colorado

No. 6 UCLA

No. 5 Oregon

No. 4 Washington State

No. 3 Stanford

No. 2 Washington